Monday, March 25, 2013

Music Review: Alan Silvestri – “The Croods”

Alan Silvestri gets back to his roots.

Article first published as Music Review: Alan Silvestri - The Croods on Blogcritics.

Alan Silvestri may not be a household name (we’ll leave that to John Williams), but I’ll bet you have a lot of the films he’s scored in your collection. Silvestri has composed music for every Robert Zemeckis film since the two first collaborated on Romancing the Stone and he is single-handedly responsible for my phone’s email notification (from Back to the Future). What’s funny is that the five films he scored during the ’70s I’ve never even heard of. Leave it to someone of Zemeckis’s stature to find someone as brilliant as Silvestri to unleash some of the most memorable scores of the ’80s—even if you didn’t know his name. Silvestri is also the man behind one of my all-time favorite scores (Death Becomes Her), and seems to be back in business with his score for DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods.

Two Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations (Best Original Score for Forrest Gump and Best Original Song, “Believe,” for The Polar Express), two Grammy wins (“Believe” and “Cast Away End Credits”) with two more nominations (Back to the Future and Chicken Run), the man knows his way around just about every genre. He even has some horror on his resume with six Tales from the Crypt episodes. Recently, his style has changed a little bit. Honestly, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, all three Back to the Futures, and Death Becomes Her, are almost interchangeable.

Harkening back to the sounds that made him so memorable, it’s all horns, violins, and drums. Throughout the soundtrack for The Croods there are variations on the main attraction—the song “Shine Your Way” performed by Owl City and Yuna. While personally not a huge fan of the song, there’s way worse that could be aimed at your kids on the radio. The standout tracks are “Piranhakeets,” “Turkey Fish Follies” (featuring elements similar to Back to the Future Part III and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), with the best track being “Smash and Grab,” performed with the USC Trojan Marching Band. It plays behind a scene where the family is trying to catch their breakfast, animated like the first stone-age football game. The scene is gorgeously rendered and the track is especially fun to drive to. The music video for “Shine Your Way” can be found here, and the entire soundtrack is now available on iTunes, with The Croods CD available March 26.

Cover art courtesy Relativity Music Group

Movie Review: “Admission”

Has its moments, but doesn't live up to Fey or Rudd's comedic standards.

** ½ out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: Admission on Blogcritics.

Tina Fey may have left a 30-minute hole in my Thursday night viewing with 30 Rock coming to an end after seven seasons, but she’s gonna have to do better than Admission to make up for it. We know Fey is better than this, having written the instant classic Mean Girls and working as head writer for Saturday Night Live.

Director Paul Weitz on the other hand, is coming back to what he knows best. Admission may not live up to the standards he set with About a Boy and In Good Company, but this is way better than Cirque du Freak - The Vampire's Assistant or American Dreamz. Even American Pie was better than this and we’ll just pretend Little Fockers never happened.

In Admission, Fey plays Portia Nathan who has worked in the Princeton University admissions office for 16 years. Portia loves her simple life, in which work comes first but still makes time for her live-in long-term boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen) — even though Mark literally treats her like a dog. At work, the Dean of Admissions Clarence (Wallace Shawn), has just informed everyone of some bad news — Princeton has suddenly fallen to No. 2 in the college application rankings and he will soon be retiring. Portia is one of Clarence’s two best admission officers — the other being the automaton-like Corinne (Gloria Reuben).

While out scouting for college hopefuls, she winds up at the New Development School, Quest, run by John Pressman (Paul Rudd). Pressman wants her to meet his best student, the quirky Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). While there, John tells Portia that he has proof Jeremiah is her son. Meanwhile, she’s dealing with her feminist mother, Susannah (the ever reliable Lily Tomlin), and the news that Mark is leaving her after knocking up the mean-spirited Helen (Sonya Walger). Things go from bad to worse as she deals with the idea of meeting her supposed son who wants more than anything to go to Princeton, even though his transcript is the worst she’s ever seen. Now, Portia has to come to terms with her life choice of 17 years ago, and help Jeremiah get into Princeton because she’s all about helping the little guys get in.

Screenwriter Karen Croner adapts Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel with no regard to how film plots work. We all know that some things in books don’t translate well to the big screen. Admission is not helped by Weitz who may know how to wring a joke from his cast, but is working with none of the subtlety he’s shown in the past — the soundtrack choices being the worst offense. The last half of the movie really gets bogged down with overwrought sentimentality. Fey and Rudd try to keep things moving, but Tomlin and Sheen steal the film right out from under them. Sheen gets used strictly for the broadest laughs. But they work — probably due to having portrayed the same character relationship with Fey on 30 Rock. Admission may be just another piece of Hollywood fluff filling the gap before the summer blockbusters come charging in if it slips under your radar I won’t be surprised as the theater I attended was barely half full; just like the movie.

Photos courtesy Focus Features

Movie Review: “The Croods”

Way more to The Croods than advertised.

**** ½ out of 5
98 minutes
Rated PG for some scary action
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Article first published as Movie Review: The Croods on Blogcritics.

While it’s never highly publicized, sometimes a replacement director/writer can be a saving grace in the world of animation. It’s happened twice at Pixar alone — first on Ratatouille and again with this year’s Oscar-winning Brave. Sometimes the studio can smell a rat and needs fresh blood to come in and save the day. For DreamWorks Animation, they decided to bring in Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) to rescue The Croods from Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps).

The Croods may not quite be the next instant classic, but at least it lives up to the fact that DreamWorks is still nipping at Pixar’s heels, so long as Shrek or Madagascar isn’t featured in the title. Yes, the days of Shark Tale and Bee Movie are long gone now.

We’re introduced to The Croods through 2D animated rock drawings explaining that Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) and her loveable family are the last of the Neanderthals. Her dad, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), believes in having as many rules as possible to keep them safe. Eep isn’t a fan of these overbearing rules and hates being cooped up in their cave for three days running. Her mother Ugga (voiced by Catherine Keener) loves her brood and understands Grug means well and tries explaining that Eep just needs some personal space. Thunk (voiced by Clark Duke) is up for abiding by any rule Grug lays down, Grandma Gran (voiced by Cloris Leachman) keeps pushing Grug’s buttons, teasing him with the fact that she’s still alive, and baby Sandy (voiced by Randy Thom) grunts and gnarls like a newborn puppy.

One night, Eep breaks Grug’s most important rule by slipping out of the cave at night after being awoken by a light from outside. She follows the light to find a fire, something she’s never seen before. The fire belongs to Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) whom Eep is instantly smitten with. Especially since he’s the only boy around besides Thunk. Guy explains to Eep that “The End” is coming and they need to be prepared, but Grug thinks that he knows best, even though they’re constantly in hiding, and eventually a rift destroys their cave. Now the whole family sets out on the Earth’s first road trip leading to treks through dried up ocean beds full of walking whales, attacks by piranhakeets, listening to Guy’s “ideas” like how to set traps to catch food and Belt (voiced by Sanders), the sloth-like, scene-stealer who doubles as pet and fashion accessory, all while trying to get to higher ground and survive “The End.”

There’s far more going on here than the advertising would lead you to believe. And if anyone was ever hoping for “Darwinism: The Movie” they need look no further. Thankfully Sanders (who I’m giving full credit here because there’s no way De Micco could have pulled this film off) never hits you over the head. Everything is just up on screen for you to take it for what it is, but it may put off some in the Creationist camp. Of course, a family full of Neanderthals is going to be designed after apes, right? The voice cast is having a ball, with Cage never bogging down the proceedings as I originally feared. And leave it to Emma Stone to make a caveman groan endearing every time.

As seems to be the case with each new 3D release, the 3D is worth the extra charge as it gives “The End” a real sense of danger with depth that expands literally to the horizon while floating embers, dust, and dandelions make you want to swat them away from your face. Alan Silvestri adds a rousing soundtrack harkening back to his days of early Robert Zemeckis collaborations like Back to the Future, Death Becomes Her, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? DreamWorks definitely continues their winning streak with The Croods, a new generation's own modern stone-age family.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks Animation

Friday, March 22, 2013

Movie Review: “Olympus Has Fallen”

Now this is a Die Hard movie!

**** out of 5
120 minutes
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout

Article first published as Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen on Blogcritics.

Lucius Fox, Harvey Dent, and King Leonidas walk into a bar… OK, so maybe there isn’t a joke to go along with that intro, but the three do star together in the new action/thriller Olympus Has Fallen. The plot sounds like a joke unto itself: a disgraced Secret Service agent must single-handedly save the President after the White House is taken down by Koreans. See what I mean? The good news is that director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has delivered an even better Die Hard “sequel” than Bruce Willis could muster in A Good Day to Die Hard.

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) leads the Secret Service under President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Mike is extra chummy with everyone and keeps a particular eye on the President’s son Connor (Finley Jacobsen), even teaching him tricks of the trade and where all the secret pathways are throughout the White House. On their way to a billionaire’s Christmas party, they all wind up in a horribly rendered CGI car crash on an icy bridge. Mike only manages to save the President — Connor was in Mike’s car — and the first lady, Margaret (Ashley Judd), dies. Cut to 18 months later, Mike has been reassigned to a desk job in the Treasury Department. Of course Mike hates his new assignment, and seems to be having some marital issues with his wife Leah (Radha Mitchell), but the boys on the force still look up to him, especially Forbes (Dylan McDermott).

Tension has come to a fever pitch in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and Prime Minister Lee (Keong Sim), along with his foreign aid, has just arrived to meet with the President to discuss their options. At the same time, an unidentified jet flies into the no-fly zone and all hell breaks loose in the streets of Washington, D.C. as a group of Korean terrorists attack the White House. Mike watches from a window and soon hits the street to save anyone he can, kill any terrorists he finds, and eventually winds up being the sole survivor of the attack inside the Oval Office while Lee is killed by his aid, Kang (Rick Yune), and takes the President hostage — now aided by Forbes — inside the President’s Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), along with Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo). Meanwhile, Mike must make like McClane, at the behest of Acting President Speaker Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), Secretary Service Director Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett), and General Edward Clegg (Robert Forster).

I have to admit, my expectations walking into Olympus Has Fallen were extremely low. Director Fuqua doesn’t have the best track record (see Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Shooter, or Brooklyn’s Finest) and screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are making their debuts. But if it’s of any indication, Fuqua still has some fight in him and I can’t wait to see what the writers come up with next. The cast seems to be keeping their tongues firmly in cheek and see the ridiculousness of what’s happening around them. Melissa Leo gets a huge laugh when she belts out the Pledge of Allegiance and Yune can’t get through a scene without a smirk.

Thankfully, this could be seen as a comeback vehicle for Butler who hasn’t been this much fun in a while. He even seems like he’s gearing up for Gamer 2 in more than one scene as he trots around the White House halls in the same gear, brandishing a huge gun. It should be noted that the R-rating is fully lived up to as well. There are some spectacularly violent scenes; it would surprise me if more ammunition is spent in these two hours than most action films. If you’re looking for a fast-paced dose of big, dumb, fun while we wait for the Summer blockbusters to come rolling in at a weekly pace, look no further than Olympus Has Fallen. It’s definitely the most fun you can have at the movies right now and will stand out as one of the best action films of the year.

Photos courtesy FilmDistrict

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Blu-ray Review: “Bachelorette”

A first-rate transfer for a mediocre comedy.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Bachelorette on Blogcritics.

There’s been a ton of buzz surrounding the 2012 Sundance hit, Bachelorette. I didn’t catch it at last year’s festival, but a colleague of mine did and has assured me that it was essentially a Bridesmaids 2, only darker.

I do love Bridesmaids, but let me tell ya, Bachelorette is no Bridesmaids. It’s not even Very Bad Things. Sure, it may be foul-mouthed and vulgar, but even with the most likable characters you barely care what happens to them by the end of an eternity-feeling 87 minutes. Had it possibly gone the route of Very Bad Things, it may have given the cast a bigger chance to shine, but alas, we’re stuck with a group of very bad people instead.

Bachelorette finds us introduced to the loathsome Regan (Kirsten Dunst) who’s out to lunch with Becky (Rebel Wilson), her friend from high school. Becky informs Regan that she’s engaged to Dale (Hayes MacArthur). This infuriates Regan because in high school, they all used to call Becky “Pig Face” behind her back. It’s not a surprise to learn that Regan and Becky, along with fellow gal pals Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), were all called the “B-faces” back then. It’s pretty obvious what the “B” stands for, as every character is incredibly self-centered and mean-spirited. They all gather in a hotel somewhere in New York for one last night of debauchery. That is until Katie’s co-worker shows up as a stripper and calls Becky “pig face.”

Now Becky has put a stop to the night’s proceedings, but that doesn’t put an end to the other three from ripping the wedding dress, getting it bloody from Katie’s cocaine riddled nose, and dragging it (literally) through the streets of New York to find someone to patch up the dress. We’re also treated to a subplot that works better than anything else in the film, revolving around Gena and Clyde (Adam Scott), one of the groomsmen. Also participating in the shenanigans is the best man, Trevor (James Marsden), and down-on-his-luck-in-love Joe (Kyle Bornheimer). They all learn the standard life lessons in their madcap dash to save the wedding day from themselves but unfortunately, there’s nothing new for us here.

Writer/director Leslye Headland states during the surprisingly interesting commentary track that she began writing Bachelorette back in 2006. She also points out in the commentary that the female characters are based on her own personalities while the men are based on her friends because she only has really nice friends. It’s no wonder that when the two parties meet up in the hallway on their way to their separate nights of debauchery, we wish the camera was following the men. Dale, Joe, Clyde, and Trevor would have made for far better antics no doubt. That is until the women come barging in while they’re at a strip club.

Somewhere before she rushed through the film production to make the Sundance debut, Bachelorette was a stage play in which Scott and Caplan played the same characters. This makes it fitting that these two have more chemistry than even the so-called group of “friends.” It also helps that the two hilariously played love interests before on the canceled-too-soon Party Down. The only other characters you barely care about are Katie and Joe. Dunst overplays her character to the point of histrionics and as much as they plaster Wilson all over the cover, thanks to the insufferable popularity of Pitch Perfect, she only amounts to maybe 20 minutes of screen time. Which is really weird, since the film is called Bachelorette, but is all about the bridesmaids.

Bachelorette parties onto Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode on a BD-25 in a ratio of 2.40:1. If you’re worried about the film being crammed onto such a small disc, remember the short running time here and how scant the special features are. Being filmed on digital Red One cameras certainly helps too. For all the talk of this being such a rushed production, things look rather impeccable. Crush is never prevalent and details are outstanding considering the $3 million budget. With no DNR on hand, the digital sheen shines through in nearly every shot and there’s no noise, banding, or aliasing to speak of either. Rest assured the film looks way better than its 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio companion. The sound mix itself is rather fantastic, but it certainly drowns out the dialogue with surround effects and/or blaring music.

The special features are rather limited. We get an informational audio commentary track by Headland where she takes the time to explain her production which makes some things that happen in the film make more sense, but alas, not any funnier. Considering the cast on hand, I had hoped the two minute blooper reel could wind up being funnier than the whole film, but of course I was wrong. There’s also a five minute “Behind the Scenes” featuring interviews with the cast and crew, showing how much they all loved working together and how much fun they were having. Too bad none of it wound up working its way into the film.

The biggest issue with Bachelorette is that it commits the biggest cardinal sin of a good comedy by being so boring. You wait and wait for something hilarious to happen, and the only time anything remotely interesting happens is when Gena and Clyde are hashing out their sordid past relationship. I suppose if you’re looking for some mindless entertainment, there are far worse things posing as comedies at the local Redbox. And the film apparently has an audience somewhere having earned about $5.5 million on VOD. Is it worth the current Amazon price of $16.99? Not even close. But for only $1 there are far worse things you could waste your time and money on. Bachelorette is at least worth a rental at best.

Cover art and photos courtesy Anchor Bay Home Entertainment